A jungle day-trip: studying brazil nuts in the Peruvian Amazon

October 30th, 2013

By Eleanor Warren-Thomas

Ladybird, Amazon-style. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

The day begins at around 5 a.m., when the sounds of motorbikes revving, dogs barking, wood being chopped and shouting men start to permeate the room. I haven’t needed to set my alarm for weeks.

I am here to help run a project on Brazil nut harvesting from lowland rainforests in Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon. Brazil nut collection from these forests forms a huge part of many people’s livelihood in this area, and the project aims to improve knowledge about the variation in Brazil nut production, which changes among trees and between years for as-yet unknown reasons.

Brazil nut trees, known locally as castaña, take decades to mature and start producing nuts in the wild, so the majority of the productive trees in these concessions are enormous – at least a meter across at the base – and are some of the tallest trees in the forest. Brazil nut trees are protected by law, and in some areas they stand alone in areas cleared for pasture. In many other areas, they form part of standing intact forest within concessions owned by local people, who walk well-managed trails through the forest each year to collect the nuts by hand.

Today we are starting out from the only hospedaje in the little town of Alegria, and will travel about 20 km along a dirt road to visit a castañero who lives in his Brazil nut concession. My colleague and I load the rear pannier of the motorbike with two rucksacks full of tents, food and multiple pairs of socks. Calling in at our favorite breakfast spot, we find that there is ‘no quinoa in town’ so make do with sweet bread and strawberry yogurt from one of the grocery shops. Sitting outside the shop, we attract the attention of two kittens who attempt to scale our trousers, and a puppy who finds he doesn’t have the ability to climb, but is happy to make do with finishing off the yogurt pot.

Motorbike loaded and ready to go. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Squeezed onto the motorbike, we head along the tarmac road out of town, and turn off onto a red dirt road. After rain, these roads take on the texture of butter and are perilous for motorbikes, but today it is dry and fine. The morning is cool and the clouds are low, rubbing out the tops of trees and swirling across the road. We fly along the road and the plastic bag full of eggs and bread that I am clutching flaps madly in the wind. The road is full ofhazards – soft rivulets of mud, hidden bumps, the occasional wooden bridge – requiring expert driving.

The red road. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Forty minutes later we arrive, windblown, under an enormous mango tree dripping with fruit that guards the front of our host’s house. Set in a field of tough tropical grass are several wooden buildings that house grandparents, a daughter, a son and their spouses. Ducks and chickens roam about amongst the fallen fruit, and two dogs bark in cautious greeting. It is mango season here, and the soft thumps of fruits hitting the ground are frequent. We are invited into the kitchen, an airy building with a handmade thatched roof, where a neat three-ringed charcoal burner made of compacted mud is roaring. Two cups of hot “chapo” are handed to us as a welcome second breakfast – sweet plantain mashed with sugar and spices using a specially selected stem of a young “quillabordon” tree that naturally forms a whisk-like shape.

Under the mango tree. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

As the day starts to heat up, our 77-year-old host dons his canvas shoes, picks up his machete and leads us into the forest. We quickly leave the strong sun behind on the open road and enter a perfect green corridor as we follow a narrow logging road into the forest. The huge tire tracks have formed long-lasting puddles in the soft clay soil, that are filled with tadpoles. This part of the forest feels special – we walk for about half an hour without encountering any logged trees, and the forest seems particularly dark green. Hidden birds shout from all around us, and the soft mud reveals the presence of deer, peccary and agouti. The soft ground after rain tells all sort of secrets – in other forests we have seen fresh tapir tracks only hours old, and even ocelot prints.

Ocelot prints. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

We veer off the road onto a carefully cleared path, the ground cloaked in big brown leaves from the towering castaña trees. As we crunch along, I have the odd impression of being on a walk through an English woodland on a summer’s day, until my eye is caught by a 6-inch electric blue butterfly floating along the path. Blue morpho butterflies seem to be found everywhere here, often in what seem to be leks of male butterflies flashing their wings at each other in clearings and on paths.

Blue morpho butterfly wing. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Brazil nut trees tower over us at regular intervals, some more than an arm-span in diameter and 40 meters high. The carefully maintained paths lead from tree to tree, each trunk cleaned of lianas and giving the appearance of columns holding up the green canopy. Piles of emptied “cocos” – the hard outer shells that contain sets of individual brazil nuts – lie at intervals along the paths, partially hidden under leaves and ready to twist the ankles of unwary walkers.

A castañero makes a temporary shelter from the rain. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

High-pitched squeaking from the trees betrays the presence of saddle-backed tamarins which peer inquisitively at us as we respond with our own squeaky noises. They seem reasonably confident around people despite the fact that they are often taken from the wild as pets here. In the past week howler monkeys, titi monkeys and spider monkeys have all also come within earshot, or even partially into view.

The presence of so many animals despite so much human activity in the forest is wonderful, and seems to demonstrate how fundamental the economic value of brazil nut trees is for the health of these forests. Although selective logging and hunting of local wildlife continues, the presence of producing castaña trees preserves patches of forest where its structure is undisturbed and the shade is deep and cool. Wildlife is persisting well into disturbed areas, but for me the dark green patches feel like safe havens.

After five hours of walking along forest trails our host leads us back to his house in time for lunch, where we are served rice, beans and fried plantain washed down with sweet tea. His wife and daughter spend the day in the house, preparing food for us strangers along with the family without a thought. At 77-years-old, our host understandably prefers to spend the afternoons napping on a bench in the shade of his mango tree, leaving us free to visit the stream that runs past the house and bathe in the sandy bottomed pool they have created through clever use of a log dam. Tiny fish swim about, palm trees provide shade overhead and the musical song of oropendulas drips from the trees. More tamarins swing past to peer at us, as we nibble on mangos and cool our feet in the water. I can’t help but smile as I think back on the day and hope to myself, long may the dark green persist.

Brazil nut flowers. Photo by Eleanor Warren-Thomas.

Deep inside Guyana: the beautiful and biodiverse Rupununi region

July 22nd, 2013

By Benedicte de Waziers

Deep inside Guyana’s territory hides an enigmatic ecosystem that few people have heard of. The Rupununi regionRaponani in Carib–is located in the Takutu basin in Southern Guyana. The Rupununi is home to many Amerindian tribes, including the Makushi.

Despite its fast-growing population and urbanization, the Rupununi provides invaluable services for its inhabitants. The majority of the Makushi people settle along the region’s rivers and rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods. For instance, hunting and fishing are regular and important activities for the Makushi whose protein intake comes mainly from wild animals (60% from fish).

The northern Rupununi wetlands play a critical role in maintaining the overall health and functioning of the rivers providing important services to Makushi such as flood control, food, and economic vitality. The Makushi benefit from many other “free” ecosystem services provided by the forests, savannas, and wetlands of the Rupununi. For example, the Makushi depend on plants for medicinal purposes and trees to build their homes.

In addition to the services that ecosystems contribute to local well-being, Guyana also has a significant impact on global systems through its role as a carbon sink. Guyana’s largely undisturbed forests are carbon rich, sequestering nearly 300 tons of CO2 equivalent in one hectare. These forests, covering more than 18 million hectares, hold an estimated 5 gigatons in CO2 equivalent. The greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the destruction of Guyana’s forests are equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 1 billion cars.

The Rupununi is also home to many rare and endemic species. It is particularly rich in bat diversity, with 90 species of bats. In all, the Rupununi has over 1,400 vertebrate species, including the giant river otter, jaguar, black caiman, harpy eagle, and Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock (rupicola rupicola).

Ranching, mining, and agriculture are increasingly putting pressure on this ecosystem of global importance. It is in our hands to ensure this unique source of capital–natural capital–keeps providing life-supporting benefits to the Makushi and generates sustained regional growth.

 

To learn about what the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is doing to help the LAC Region sustainably manage ecosystems, visit www.iadb.org/biodiversity or follow us at @BIDEcosistemas.  Benedicte de Waziers is the Communication Specialist for the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program launched in March 2013 by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Activism: funds needed to replant forest for nearly-extinct loris

June 28th, 2011

Note: as a news organization mongabay.com does not endorse the action below, but believes its readers may be interested in taking action or discussing the issue in comments.


Horton Plains slender loris. Photo courtesy of EDGE.

Researchers estimate that only 80 Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) survive in the world. After believed to be extinct ZSL EDGE rediscovered the subspecies in a dwindling Sri Lanka forest in 2009. Now EDGE is working to raise money to fund reforestation of a vital corridor for the Horton Plains slender loris. Already, the loris has lost 80% of its habitat.

From the EDGE blog: “This project will not only benefit the endangered loris, but also a host of other species found within the threatened montane forest environment such as the leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the ‘shaggy bear monkey’ (Trachypithecus vetulus monticola), the endemic Nillu rat (Rattus montanus), and the Sri Lanka spiny mouse (Mus ohiensis) amongst others.”

To donate money to the project: Reforestation Project in Sri Lanka for Horton Plains slender loris.

Banana plantation threatens rainforest valley (video)

June 21st, 2011

Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains were recently spared a titanium mine, however now the region faces a new peril: bananas. The Australian firm Indochina Gateway Capital Limited has proposed a banana plantation in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. The plantation would likely destroy an elephant corridor for one of Cambodia’s last wild elephant populations. In addition, pesticides used in the plantation could pollute local waters, threatening nearly-extinct species, such as the royal turtle, and local people.

According to Wildlife Alliance: [we] recently proposed an alternate plantation location to Indochina Gateway as a win-win solution: Move the proposed location of the plantation to the nearby province of Kampot, where the same beneficial conditions exist (i.e. excellent water supply and good soil). Beyond that our proposed plantation area is actually closer to a harbor and labor sources, and it is located in truly degraded forest inside a low priority ecosystem.

For more information: Learn About the Threat to Key Tropical Forest Corridor Presented by Banana Plantation

For more on the conservation organization Wildlife Alliance:

Cambodia’s wildlife pioneer: saving species and places in Southeast Asia’s last forest

(05/11/2011) Suwanna Gauntlett has dedicated her life to protecting rainforests and wildlife in some of the world’s most hostile and rugged environments and has set the trend of a new generation of direct action conservationists. She has designed, implemented, and supported bold, front-line conservation programs to save endangered wildlife populations from the brink of extinction, including saving the Amur Tiger (also known as the Siberian Tiger) from extinction in the 1990s in the Russian Far East, when only about 80 individuals remained and reversing the drastic decline of Olive Ridley sea turtles along the coast of Orissa, India in the 1990s, when annual nestings had declined from 600,000 to a mere 8,130. When she first arrived in Cambodia in the late 1990s, its forests were silent. ‘You couldn’t hear any birds, you couldn’t hear any wildlife and you could hardly see any signs of wildlife because of the destruction,’ Gauntlett said. Wildlife was being sold everywhere, in restaurants, on the street, and even her local beauty parlor had a bear.

Activism: save Southeast Asia’s last major primary lowland rainforest

June 2nd, 2011

Note: as a news organization, mongabay.com does not endorse the action below, but believes its readers may be interested in taking action or discussing the issue further.


Villagers from Prey Lang forest area rally in Cambodia’s capital against continuing destruction of their forest. Protestors dressed as ‘avatars’ to gain more attention to their plight. Photo courtesy of: Prey Lang Network.

Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest is one of Southeast Asia’s most important rainforests. Much of the forest has never been logged even though as as a lowland rainforest it should have been one of the first to see the axe. It sustains startling biodiversity including popular animals such as tigers and elephants, and provides vital resources to the surrounding communities. Yet, the Prey Lang forest remains unprotected and the forest is being handed over to corporations for clearcutting piece-by-piece. Locals are working to stop the destruction, but they face an uphill battle, including threats to arrest and intimidation for protesting. For Prey Lang to be protected, pressure may need to come from abroad as well as locally.

According to the petition: “Prey Lang is the last large primary forest of its kind on the Indochinese peninsula. Inclusive of seven distinct ecosystems including unique primordial forest, Prey Lang’s biodiversity is exceptionally high, including almost 40 endangered plant and animal species. As a primary watershed, regulating water and sediment flow to the Tonle Sap Basin, and as an important spawning area for fish, Prey Lang is vital for Cambodia’s long-term environmental sustainability and people’s food and water security. With among the highest carbon sequestration values in the region, it is a powerhouse for fighting global warming. About 200,000 people, mostly indigenous Kuy, live around the forest and our dependent on it for their livelihoods and culture.”

Prey Lang Forest petition: Help Save Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest.

For more information on Prey Lang:

Photos: Cambodians rally as ‘Avatars’ to save one of the region’s last great rainforests

(05/31/2011) Two hundred Cambodians rallied in Phnom Penh last week to protest the widespread destruction of one of Southeast Asia’s last intact lowland rainforests, known as Prey Lang. In an effort to gain wider media attention, protestors donned dress and make-up inspired by the James Cameron film, Avatar, which depicts the destruction of a forest and its inhabitants on an alien world. The idea worked as the rally received international attention from Reuters, CNN (i-report), MSNBC, and NPR, among other media outlets.

Cambodians prevented from protesting destruction of their forest

(03/10/2011) Cambodian villagers fighting to save their forest from rubber companies have been rebuked by the local government. Two days in a row local authorities prevented some 400 Cambodian villagers from protesting at the offices of the Vietnam-based CRCK Company, which the villagers contend are destroying their livelihoods by bulldozing large swaths of primary forests. Authorities said they feared the villagers would have grown violent while protesting.

Girl Scouts fighting palm oil receive wider media coverage (video)

May 24th, 2011

After five years of campaigning, two Girl Scouts fighting palm oil in Girl Scout cookies are receiving wider media coverage this week after meeting with heads of Girl Scouts of the US. The organization has now agreed to research different options, such as sustainably-grown palm oil or using another ingredient, reports the Wall Street Journal. Above, the Girl Scout activists are interviewed on the CBS Early Show.

For more information:

Girls Scouts censors Facebook page after coming under criticism for product linked to rainforest loss

(05/04/2011) Girls Scouts USA has censored its Facebook page after receiving comments criticizing the organization, according to Rainforest Action Network (RAN). RAN along with Change.org and two Girl Scout activists, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, declared today a social media day of activism against the Girl Scouts for using palm oil in their popular cookies. The oil has been linked to rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Avon commits to greener palm oil

(04/15/2011) The beauty products giant Avon will purchase enough GreenPalm certificates to meet 100 percent of its palm oil use.

KFC dumps palm oil due to health, environmental concerns

(04/08/2011) KFC Corporation, the fast food giant, will stop using palm oil in its deep friers, reports The Independent.

Pictures: Primary forests included, secondary forests excluded in Indonesia’s moratorium

May 21st, 2011

This week Indonesia officially signed a moratorium on the granting of new logging and plantation permits in primary forests and peatlands. Secondary forests are excluded from the measure.



In recognition of the moratorium, below is a selection of photos from Indonesian rainforests. All photos have been taken by Rhett Butler since 2009.



Strangler fig in North Sulawesi

Strangler fig in North Sulawesi


Giant Dipterocarp in North Sumatra

Giant Dipterocarp in North Sumatra


Rainforest in West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), in Indonesian New Guinea

Rainforest in West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), in Indonesian New Guinea


Borneo rainforest

Borneo rainforest


North Sumatra

North Sumatra


Strangler fig in North Sulawesi

Strangler fig in North Sulawesi


Rainforest in West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo

Rainforest in West Kalimantan on the island of Borneo


Rainforest canopy seen from the base of a compass tree, Sumatra

Rainforest canopy seen from the base of a compass tree, Sumatra


Rain forest along the Bohorok River, Sumatra

Rain forest along the Bohorok River, Sumatra


Gunung Leuser rain forest, Sumatra

Gunung Leuser rain forest, Sumatra


Rainforest in West Kalimantan, Borneo

Rainforest in West Kalimantan, Borneo


Rainforest in West Kalimantan, Borneo

Rainforest in West Kalimantan, Borneo


Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo

Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo


Arfak cloud forest

Arfak cloud forest


Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo

Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo


Indonesian Borneo

Indonesian Borneo


North Sulawesi

North Sulawesi


West Kalimantan, Borneo

West Kalimantan, Borneo


West Kalimantan, Borneo

West Kalimantan, Borneo


West Kalimantan, Borneo

West Kalimantan, Borneo


Indonesian Borneo

Indonesian Borneo


Indonesian Borneo

Indonesian Borneo


Sumatra rain forest

Sumatra rain forest


River valley in the Arfak mountains, West Papua

River valley in the Arfak mountains, West Papua


West Kalimantan, Borneo

West Kalimantan, Borneo


Indonesian Borneo

Indonesian Borneo


Wild Geranium in Indonesian Borneo

Wild Geranium in Indonesian Borneo


Cloud forest in New Guinea

Cloud forest in New Guinea


Rainforest creek in Taman Hutan Raya, South Kalimantan, Borneo

Rainforest creek in Taman Hutan Raya, South Kalimantan, Borneo


Tangkoko, North Sulawesi

Tangkoko, North Sulawesi


Rainforest in West Kalimantan

Rainforest in West Kalimantan


Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo

Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo


Triangular buttress roots in Indonesian Borneo

Triangular buttress roots in Indonesian Borneo


Giant rain forest tree with a warning on the trunk, West Kalimantan

Giant rain forest tree with a warning on the trunk, West Kalimantan


Note: Nearly all the forests pictured above can be classified as “secondary forests” and therefore subject to logging under the moratorium

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron visit indigenous community threatened by mega-dam (video)

April 26th, 2011

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron visit an Arara village on the Big Bend of the Xingu River, which is imperiled by Brazil’s mega-dam Belo Monte.

For more information on the Belo Monte:

Bill Clinton takes on Brazil’s megadams, James Cameron backs tribal groups

(03/28/2011) Former US President, Bill Clinton, spoke out against Brazil’s megadams at the 2nd World Sustainability Forum, which was also attended by former California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and film director, James Cameron, who has been an outspoken critic of the most famous of the controversial dams, the Belo Monte on the Xingu River.

World’s most controversial dam, Brazil’s Belo Monte, back on

(03/06/2011) A recent injunction against controversial dam, Belo Monte, in Brazil has been overturned, allowing the first phase of construction to go ahead. The ruling by a higher court argued that not all environmental conditions must be met on the dam in order for construction to start.

Half a million people sign petition against Belo Monte, Brazilian mega-dam

(02/08/2011) In a protest today in Brasilia, Brazil, indigenous people delivered a petition to authorities signed by 500,000 people calling on them to cancel the controversial Belo Monte dam. They hope the petition, organized by online activist group Avaaz, will help convince Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, to cancel the project. However, actions by Brazil’s first female president have pushed the dam forward.

Photo: A giant tree

April 23rd, 2011

a giant tree
Me in front of a giant kapok or ceiba tree on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This is nowhere near the largest kapok tree I’ve ever seen — they get considerably bigger — but it is nonetheless gigantic.

the big tree
The same ceiba, which is called “The Big Tree”, seen from a distance.

kapok tree
The same ceiba tree seen from a boat on Lake Gatun (e.g. Panama Canal).

ceiba tree
Looking up the trunk of the kapok tree

rhett butler in front of a kapok tree in panama
Again, me for scale.

Series of films explore challenges in Monteverde cloud forest (videos)

April 19th, 2011

A new series of 11 films looks back on the last 50 years of history in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica, and looks forward to the future.

According to Monteverde Now website: “‘Monteverde Now’ gives you access to place where change cannot be ignored-Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest. It is a collection of 11 short films about people who live and work in one of our planet’s most diverse and delicate ecosystems. Wherever you live, these stories will give you new perspective on the rapidly changing relationship between people and the planet.”

For more information: Monteverde Now website

For all eleven videos: Monteverde Now channel on YouTube